Lethal microbes = "Evil" microbes ?

Ian S. Johnston (johian@homer.acs.bethel.edu)
Tue, 9 Dec 1997 17:49:08 -0600 (CST)

My next teaching assignment here at Bethel College (a Christian liberal arts
college) is a non-majors, science-technology-and-society course titled "Lethal
Microbes: New and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases." We will use examples such
as Ebola virus, HIV, antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens and bacteria with
unusually potent virulence factors (e.g. "the bug that ate my face") to explore
ways that science attempts to elucidates these disease agents, and then spawns
technologies for diagnosis and maybe even treatment, and then finally how these
activities feed-back on society (our culture?). I anticipate my Christian
students (and myself too) trying to grapple with the potentially evil dimensions
of these biological entities.

Having lurked for a year or so on this list-server, I am aware that certain
interpretations of the outcome of the Fall (e.g. a dramatic disjunction
represented by "the curse") may rather easily be used to account for deviation
from the "goodness" of God's initial creation. But my understanding of the
biological continuity of "rogue" DNA ... of viruses of increasing complexity ...
of prokaryote bacteria and ... of multicellular eukaryotic "host" organisms,
makes it difficult for me to single out individual organisms as evil (my
understanding is that the disobedience of the Fall led to a spiritual curse ...
the alienation of the human from fellowship and intimacy with both God the
creator and also with the rest of God's creation). Can anyone give me some
suggestions for pathways that I might explore with my students?

A short while ago I came across the following editorial from a Christian leader
whom I admire deeply, which seems to indicate a similar plea for help in trying
to understand the world in which we live, and then to be active agents of God's
redemptive process in it!

Excerpted from an editorial in Mission Frontiers Bulletin (July-October 1997) by
Ralph Winter:

(Published by: U.S. Center for World Mission, Pasadena, CA )

.............Okay, there's now no problem in recognizing "intelligent design,"
What about the evidence of "destructive" intelligent design? That is, both
"intelligent love and "intelligent hate"? And what should we do about It? Does
this have anything to do with missions?

Thanks to Michael Behe and his marvelous book, Darwin's Black Box (he took his
career in his hands to write it), believers now can dare to say that our immune
cells are intelligently designed for good. Okay. Isn't it equally possible,
then, that we can observe that, say, the tuberculosis bacillus is intelligently

The August 22 Los Angeles Times reported that researchers:
"...finally discovered how the tuberculosis bacterium and its cousin leprosy
invade cells...The bacteria hijack one component of the immune system and use it
like a Trojan horse to sneak into immune cells...which they then destroy."

Hmm. Intelligent! Hmm. How dangerous is TB? The article mentions that
tuberculosis infects an estimated one third of the world's population. Who
would design something like that? Not God!

Funny, isn't it, how reluctant "politically correct" thinking is to recognize
inherent evil in nature. An example: Science (August 1, p. 635ff.) tells of
modern explorations of earlier man, and how difficult it has been for scientists
to accept the fact that cannibalism has been found in virtually all cases„and
not just in the case of ancient man. This story includes the Aztecs and the
recent ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians. A 1970 paper was greeted with "total
disbelief" at a time when supposedly earlier "Indians...were all peaceful and
happy." But now "30 years and 15,000 skeletons later," the evidence is
overwhelming. Why is EVIL so pervasive?

Take smallpox: one of the most horrible diseases in the history of life on
earth. For the millions and millions who died agonizing deaths it was too late
to penetrate its mysteries. But a tiny handful of farseeing souls did seek a
way to work intelligently against the incredible EVIL of this (intelligent)

As we suggested in an earlier issue: consider the theology of Jonathan Edwards,
that godly, brilliant genius of a man, that earnest colonial revivalist, that
valiant Calvinist. He did not blame all this agony on God's will somehow, and
then simply go around preaching repentance. Edwards died young, trying out on
himself an experimental vaccine against the evil of smallpox.

Are Evangelicals today too "spiritual" to fight this kind of evil at this level?
Who knows? Probably quite a few individuals here and there are actually
involved. But I don't read about them. Are pastors recruiting young people for
this kind of a mission? Does the National Association of Evangelicals include a
division that helps coordinate Evangelical efforts in this sphere?

What ARE Evangelicals busy doing? We believe, well„here is our principle article
of faith„that all we need to do is to call individuals to "a personal decision
for Christ." And, God will do the rest?

Do our Christian colleges and seminaries fight malevolent microbes? Is there
room for a Christian organization that will galvanize efforts to fight evil at
tiny levels? Note that a former missionary to Africa codirected the team
discovering the gene that produces cystic fibrosis!

Please tell me if there is anyone reading this who knows of an association of
microbe hunters or celllevel researchers who, under God, are at those levels
straining to beat back the ingenious evil of the Evil One. I will gladly
highlight such activity in these pages and try to reinforce those efforts. In
fact, to highlight the crucial need for that kind of mission may be one reason
my wife, specifically, has a very resistant form of cancer.

If this is worthy of being a new thread on the ASA list server then so be it
... otherwise, personal responses and advice will be gratefully received at the
address below ..... thanks!

Ian S. Johnston, Ph.D.
Department of Biological Sciences
Bethel College, St.Paul, MN 55112, USA
Office phone & Voice Mail (612) 638 6198
FAX (612) 638 6001
Home phone (612) 633 0703
Email i-johnston@bethel.edu